Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Best Films of 2008

In the world of cinema, 2008 belongs to the French, even if most of the Gallic entries to make their way to American screens this year had their international debuts in 2007 or earlier. At the extreme end is Philippe Garrel's exquisite J'entends Plus la Guitare, a 1991 film making its US theatrical premiere this year thanks to the auspices of fledgling distributor Film Desk. Its omission from this list is a question of too much time passed, not of quality. The year's biggest story, from a strictly artistic viewpoint, is the triumphant offerings of two Nouvelle Vague masters: Jacques Rivette's The Duchess of Langeais, certainly the movie of the year, and Eric Rohmer's The Romance of Astrea and Celadon; if the latter is indeed its director's final film, it's certainly a fitting cap to a terrific career. In addition, French directors gave us Before I Forget, Boarding Gate, The Class, La France, The Secret of the Grain and The Witnesses while Spanish director José Luis Guerín's In the City of Sylvia, another of the year's finest, was filmed in Strasbourg with dialogue (what little there is) spoken in French. Not that it was a bad year for American films, not with Kelly Reichardt cementing her status as one of the nation's essential filmmakers with Wendy and Lucy, two strong offerings from Gus Van Sant (Paranoid Park and Milk) and a score of exciting non-fiction films such as Profit motive and the whispering wind and Moving Midway.

Below is my tally of favorites (the same ranking I had in my Slant Magazine list) with brief annotations for each entry:

1. The Duchess of Langeais - Jacques Rivette

Anything but a stuffy period piece, Rivette's adaptation of the Balzac novella, about the romantic seesaw between a society duchess and a Byronic war hero (the great Guillaume Depardieu in one of his last screen roles) is endlessly fascinating. The whole thing's drenched in an air of perpetual mystery and, even as the director keeps us at a certain intellectual remove from the characters, the film proves sneakily affecting as the hero's exhaustive and exhausting search runs (figuratively) aground on the rocky shores of Majorca.

2. Still Life - Jia Zhang-ke

Among Jia's strengths: a knack for hitting on precise images to illustrate the absurdities and contradictions of China's amnesiac modernization. In this film, which takes place in the town of Fengjie as it's being evacuated for the construction of the massive Three Gorges Dam, the director gives us images of cell phones buried in rubble, tight rope walkers mysteriously appearing amidst ruins and towers shooting off into space, but never loses sight of the human consequences of the project.

3. In the City of Sylvia - José Luis Guerín

A young man eyes a succession of woman at a Strasbourg café, then follows one around the city streets. This ode to voyeurism's not half as creepy as it sounds, creating instead a rare aesthetic uplift out of a conjunction of quotidian sights and sounds (not least its gallery of beautiful young women), especially during the immersive 20-minute café sequence that stands as the film's centerpiece.

4. The Romance of Astrea and Celadon - Eric Rohmer

Rohmer's final film is an ecstatic romantic idyll, set in an utterly alien world of nymphs and druids. After a silly lovers' misunderstanding, boy and girl spend most of the movie apart, but for all the separation of its leads, the picture brims over with joyousness at the prospect of an unspoiled romantic consummation, a prospect that the director treats with nary a hint of irony.

5. Wendy and Lucy - Kelly Reichardt

This deceptively simple story of a woman travelling to Alaska and getting stuck in a small Oregon town when she loses her dog and her car breaks down, metes out its details with absolute precision. From Michelle Williams' restrained performance and Reichardt's panoramic tracking shots that take in the scope of the landscape to a gallery of supporting figures both sympathetic and treacherous and a subtle evocation of a certain desperation in the American air, everything in the film is both neatly understated and deeply felt.

6. Profit motive and the whispering wind - John Gianvito

A reading of the United States through its monuments and memorials, Gianvito's film offers eloquent tribute to the oppositional figures who helped shape our country's hidden history. As signs of modernity (highway traffic, commercial development) slip in through the cracks of the frame, they create an odd juxtaposition with the plaques commemorating the forces of opposition, the dialectic serving as a lament for a more engaged past.

7. My Winnipeg - Guy Maddin

A work of great imagination, in the transformative, revelatory sense of the word, which is to say a work of cinema. Recreating his experiences (real, imagined, fantasized) of his home town of Winnipeg, Maddin crafts a snowy fantasia that takes in hidden alleyways, the ghosts of hockey greats, a suicide-obsessed TV program called Ledge Man (pictured above) and Ann Savage as the filmmaker's "mother".

8. Paranoid Park - Gus Van Sant

Van Sant's "pure" aesthetic - drawing on super-8 skateboarding footage, a dense sound mix, and off-kilter angles that turn (for example) a shower into a full-on sensory experience - divorces image and sound from context, mirroring his teenage hero's lack of involvement, at least until young Alex accidentally kills a railroad guard. By the end, the boy's no longer under suspicion, he's made clear his lack of interest in the wider world (or at least Iraq) and he's returned to being just one more kid in school. So Van Sant fires up one last stunner of a shot: impressionistic footage of Alex burning his diary, a moment of pure imagery to cement the lack of content in the boy's life.

9. Happy-Go-Lucky - Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh's latest film grounds its lead character's irrepressible peppiness in a world of anger and disappointment. As played by Sally Hawkins (justly hyped as an Oscar front-runner), Poppy is by turns inspiring and unbearable; at times quite fully in her element, at others coming off like some unsocializable nutjob. Her showdown with Eddie Marsen's disturbed driving instructor is a heartbreaker. As Poppy learns the hard way, some people you just can't reach.

10. Boarding Gate - Olivier Assayas

Forget Asia Argento. Despite all the critical love, she barely skirts self-parody. The same can't be said for Assasyas' film, an impressionistic, international thriller for our relentless century whose air of perpetual motion slows only for a single moment of sublimity: an opened window on an airplane set off against a Brian Eno drone, the light overwhelming our senses, the world suddenly transformed.

Honorable Mentions:

Alexandra (Alexsandr Sokurov)
Before I Forget (Jacques Nolot)
The Class (Laurent Cantet)
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu)
La France (Serge Bozon)
The Man From London (Béla Tarr)
Moving Midway (Godfrey Cheshire)
The Secret of the Grain (Abdel Kechiche)
Timecrimes (Nacho Vigalondo)
The Witnesses (André Téchiné)


tom Pace said...

i wondered why 'tell no one' and 'a christmas tale' were not mentioned since they seemed to be french in a way not so different from rohmer, or sautet

andrew schenker said...

Yes, a Christmas Tale (along with The Last Mistress and Flight of the Red Balloon) were also notable French releases. I didn't mention these films because none of them were particular favorites of mine. I haven't seen Tell No One.